What is instinct?—Part 2:

When Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, talks about how he and his wife went on vacation in the 80’s to Europe, he noticed that in Italy, France and England, just about everyone had the habit of going from home, to work, to a “third place” (café or pub) before going back home. He recognized an underlying pattern that was pervasive but that no one talked about consciously. And he came to the correct conclusion that having a daily “third place” that is free from obligations and stress, an oasis as it were, was a universal human need he could capitalize upon. Famously, he went home to Seattle and told his team, “We got it wrong. We have to be the third place to our customers.” Hence the redesign and rethinking of Starbucks not as a gourmet coffee store, but as an indulgent hangout. And the subsequent global rollout of the stores, an epic transformation of neighbourhoods and lifestyles on multiple continents.

Through his powers of observation and innate perceptiveness about human needs and emotions, Schultz was able to discern not only a pattern of behaviour, but the underlying emotional and social needs that were being satisfied, i.e., the reasons for that mass behavioural pattern.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford was another keen observer of human behaviour and emotions. He surmised that with the advent of the combustion engine and the excitement around the dawn of the new century, the public, especially those with more means, was looking for more than merely a new, faster means of transportation. People were looking for a way to declare their modernity and prosperity. Hence, the Model T became a symbol of joining—and even leading—the modern era.

About a century later, as many of the automotive giants were developing hybrid engines, one company in particular intuited that the deeper reason behind why someone would buy an early hybrid car, was not the rational reasons of fuel efficiency and environmental sustainability per se. Rather, they intuited that the most powerful reason would be the desire to declare one’s moral and intellectual superiority. A new form of modernism as it were. This company, unlike others such as Honda, decided therefore that the car had to look and sound odd, noticeable—it had to literally stick out like a sore thumb. A genius bit of instinct and pattern recognition. The car is called Prius, and the company of course is Toyota.

These are examples where the degree to which testing was conducted may have varied (Henry Ford was famously opposed to most forms of testing), but in every case sizeable investments were made and huge risks were taken, largely on the basis of a strong intuition on the part of the leadership. Underneath the numbers, research and planning, there was a powerful instinct, based on pattern recognition and perhaps other faculties we don’t even have names for, that told them: This is going to work. Or, more accurately, this is going to satisfy human needs in a way that will be compelling—perhaps irresistible.